How Much Have The Blue Jays Upgraded At Catcher?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Jays did very little to remodel their roster going into the 2014 season, but they did spring for a completely new catching tandem.

So far, fans have spent a great deal of the Blue Jays offseason wringing hands and poking Anthopoulos-shaped voodoo dolls in frustration in light the lack of tangible upgrades to this team. It is true that the Jays could have used a starting pitcher and they did not get one. It is also true that second base remains a black hole worthy of Stephen Hawking's attention. However, the Blue Jays did make a wholesale change in one area of their roster: the catchers.

When the season opens, barring any last-minute surprises, Toronto will travel north with two catchers, Dioner Navarro and Erik Kratz, who were not on the roster last year. While neither name inspires enormous amounts of confidence, there is virtually no doubt that they will be an upgrade over the complete and utter garbage fire that was the production the Jays got from their backstops in 2013. If we compare the Navarro/Kratz tandem to J.P. Arencibia and Josh Thole's numbers last year we wind up with a chart that looks like this:

Player

PA

R

HR

RBI

AVG

OBP

SLG

WAR

Arencibia/Thole

632

56

22

63

.190

.237

.340

-1.1

Navarro/Kratz

484

52

22

60

.261

.326

.444

2.4

There really isn't a great deal of room for interpretation here. Navarro and Kratz were solid whereas Arencibia and Thole were shameful. The resulting chasm between the pairs was a very significant 3.5 WAR. It would be easy to therefore conclude that by taking on some competent catchers Anthopolous has added 3+ wins to this team. However, that would be a a dicey conclusion to make.

The reality is that the comparison above is not a particularly relevant one. We know that if the Blue Jays had their current catchers on the roster last season they would have been better off. What this chart doesn't tell us is how Navarro and Kratz compare to Arencibia and Thole going forward.

Although there are plenty of reasons to expect very little from Arencibia and Thole in 2014, there is virtually no way they are going to repeat their triumph of ineptitude in the coming year. Neither player is good, but neither player is as bad as they looked last season. Conversely, Dioner Navarro had a career year at the plate and while I don't think that's utterly meaningless he can't be expected to produce at the same level again.

As a result, the best way to consider what kind of upgrade Toronto's new catchers provide is to compare their projections for 2014. While projection systems are far from perfect, aggregating multiple projections can give a decent picture of what it would be reasonable to expect this season.

In order to do a comparison of the projections for each pair of backstops I averaged all of the projections on each player's FanGraphs page (ZiPs, Steamer, Oliver and Fans) and then added that to their partner in crime's average projection to get a forecast for the two together. Because projection systems don't take role changes into account they tended to overshoot with the plate appearances (Navarro/Kratz were projected for 812 PA while Arencibia Thole were pegged for 736), in order to correct that problem I brought both sides down to a reasonable 600 PA and shifted the counting stats accordingly based on their projected rates.

What comes out of all of that time-consuming, and at times mind-numbing, arithmetic is a chart of 2014 projections that looks like this:

Player

PA

R

HR

RBI

AVG

OBP

SLG

WAR

Arencibia/Thole

600

61

18

68

.232

.285

.381

1.1

Navarro/Kratz

600

66

21

75

.252

.310

.417

2.7

This chart shows more accurately what kind of upgrade the Jays are looking at this year. If they had stuck with Arencibia and Thole they could have expected a bounce back of sorts, but they are clearly better off with their new catchers. The difference between the two options is projected to sit at 1.6 WAR, nothing to be sneezed at but nothing extraordinary either.

One thing that I haven't touched on a great deal so far is defense. Although all of the WAR totals above include defense, catcher defense is notoriously difficult to quantify. That doesn't mean that there aren't a few tools at our disposal. The table below shows some basic defensive stats comparing the pairs, as well as a couple of advanced ones such as Defensive Runs Saved and Framing Runs Above Average in 2013:

Player

Innings

SB

CS

CS%

WP

PB

E

DRS

Framing RAA

Arencibia/Thole

1341

88

29

24.7%

52

22

13

0

13.6

Navarro/Kratz

948.1

70

22

23.9%

41

6

6

-3

3.0

These numbers seem to indicate that the Blue Jays are making a defensive downgrade, but it's pretty hard to say that definitively given the year-to-year volatility of defensive stats. For example, J.P. Arencibia had a fantastic year framing pitches last season after being well below-average in that regard for the duration of his career beforehand. It's hard to say if he has learned a new skill or whether 2013 was a statistical anomaly for him. Additionally, both Kratz and Navarro struggled throwing out runners after being fairly successful doing so earlier in their careers.

Defensive numbers tend to be based on fairly small samples so in order to broaden the picture the sortable chart below shows some career rate numbers for the four catchers:

Player Wild Pitches/1000 Innings Passed Balls/1000 Innings Caught Stealing% DRS/1000 Innings Framing RAA/1000 Innings
J.P. Arencibia 42.3 11.7 26.3% 0 -4.7
Josh Thole 29.9 20.2 25.3% -2.4 -6.0
Dioner Navarro 38.3 6.5 29.3% -1.5 -3.9
Erik Kratz 29.7 5.5 33.7% 4.4 16.9

It should be noted that while Kratz comes out looking fantastic here his numbers are based on the smallest sample, 909 career innings in the major leagues, and are therefore the least reliable. That being said, he has a reputation as an excellent defensive catcher and has done nothing so far to disprove that.Also, we can dismiss Thole's inflated passed ball rate as a Dickey by-product seeing as he shows solid ability to prevent wild pitches compared to the others.

While Dioner Navarro is no great shakes as a defensive catcher, it seems that he will likely block pitches better than Arencibia and throw out more runners, even if he doesn't frame as well. When Kratz sees action he should be a steady presence defensively.

The Jays are looking at a situation where they should get palatable production from their catchers, which will be a big relief to fans who witnessed last year's complete mess. The upgrade is not a massive one and the end result is unlikely to be flashy and impressive, but it will make a difference. Not a huge difference, probably not enough of a difference, but a difference nonetheless.

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